Leading In The Storm of Crisis: A Field Guide

“Crisis.” If ever there were a time to use that word, a global pandemic would be it.

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ In this light, a crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. It’s something that shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. By this definition, events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the Internet, 9/11 and the 2008 housing crash were all crises. More recently, there’s been Brexit and the last U.S presidential election. Whether you see these events as “good” or “bad,” they each cleaved a new world. The novel corona virus has been a cleaving like no other, separating us so profoundly from life as we knew it that we can scarcely get our bearings.

And here you are, leading others through the wild storm of crisis. People are looking to you for guidance, but you may be thinking, “How do I guide others in terrain that’s alien and scary to me?” Or in simpler terms, “How do I lead when I don’t have a clue?”

It’s natural to hunker down, drive yourself harder and work longer – as if somehow you could get it all in order. But you’ll exhaust yourself if you try to outrun the hurricane of crisis, and you’ll be upended if you ignore it. The safest place to be in a hurricane is the eye, where things are quiet and still. It is the place where you can go to regain your balance, strength and sense of perspective. Visiting the eye isn’t a ‘nice to have’ in times of crisis; the people you lead actually need you to go there. They need you at your best so that you can help them be at theirs.

What exactly is the leadership work in the eye of the storm? I think there are six essential tasks, which I’ve gleaned from the immense wisdom of the leaders I work with, my colleagues, friends, community, and spiritual teachers:

  1. Catch one’s breath (if even for a moment)
  2. Confront reality
  3. Connect to what’s essential and enduring
  4. Discern the next right step
  5. Innovate
  6. Extend care

These tasks aren’t sequential. They’ll vary in how often you need to do them. Some days, you may need to do them all. Below, I’ll explore each task and start the virtual brainstorming of the practical things you can do for each.

Task 1: Catch one’s breath

In crisis, the winds of change howl at hurricane force. For most of us, the instinct is to jump into the swirl and do something. But in the swirl, we run the risk of being more active than productive, because we’re often taking action from an off-balanced place. The signs of being off-center are different for everyone, but can include:

  • an inability to sleep, and/or chronic exhaustion that is not improved by rest
  • increased irritability
  • feeling confused, anxious or overwhelmed
  • obsessive thinking and/or engagement in media
  • a change in eating or drinking habits (e.g., consuming more carbs, fat and alcohol)

Even if you notice these symptoms in yourself, you may tend to override them and just keep powering through. But these signs are actually your greatest allies, because they’re telling you that you’re probably not at your best. Heed them as a call to pause. In times of wild change, leaders need to come back to center over and over while on the run – much like tennis players reset their stance between every stroke.

The most accessible reset button is the breath. Slowing and lowering the breath, even for 30 seconds, stills the inner winds. It returns oxygen to the brain, which lowers anxiety and clarifies thinking. Here’s a link to a ‘controlled breathing’ technique that you can try.

Catching your breath also means grounding yourself – in who you are, what you stand for and what really matters. Maybe you find your ground in a personal mission statement or a set of core values; in writings or practices from your faith tradition; in nature; in a favorite writer, poet or musician; in creative pursuits or physical movement; in meditation and silence, or in connection with others.

Self-reflection can also be a crucial way of catching your breath. Consider journaling as a way to check in with yourself and process what’s going on. Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, recently published a set of “Daily Quarantine Questions” which might guide you in daily reflection:

  • What am I grateful for today?
  • Who am I checking on or connecting with today?
  • What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
  • How am I getting outside today?
  • How am I moving my body today?
  • What beauty am I creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?

Where and how you catch your breath is a deeply personal and intimate thing. What matters is that you know what works for you and that you do it. Often.

Task 2: Confront reality

Fake news, opinion-as-fact culture, and partisan information bubbles make it very challenging to get an accurate picture of reality. But facing reality is essential in taking action that is rooted in discernment, not distress.Here are a few tips for getting your bearings in the swirling hurricane of change.

  • Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” Navigating crisis requires leaders to model the ability to stay curious, keep learning, and adjust as you go. Try not to assume (or let others assume) that you know how this situation is going to go. Take care not to shut down to perspectives or people that you disagree with. Stay open.
  • Engage your stakeholders. Don’t assume what your customers, suppliers, competitors, employees and bosses are experiencing. Ask them and let in what they’re telling you.
  • Get educated. Facts are the best stars by which to navigate this new terrain. Listen to the experts. Consult legitimate media sources on the left and the right. If you’re wondering if media reports are accurate, here’s a link to an article by on how to spot fake news.
  • Tell the truth. Repeat facts. Share opinion as opinion. Beware of over-simplifying a complex and nuanced reality. Address rumors quickly.

Once you gather information about what’s happening now, you have to help your team make sense of it. I think questions are the best way to guide the meaning-making process. Here are some that might prime your thinking:

  • What are we noticing? What do we know?
  • What do we not know, and when/how will we find out?
  • Given what we know right now, what are the most likely scenarios? Best and worst case?
  • What are the opportunities and threats in each of those scenarios?
  • What assumptions are driving and limiting our thinking?

Disruptive change isn’t just difficult intellectually; it has a profound impact on us personally. Failing to deal with these impacts is often what inhibits our ability to adapt. Here are examples of questions to help people confront the personal impacts of this strange new reality:

  • How does this all affect me? How does it affect us?
  • What do I/we need to confront about the world or ourselves to really let this information in?
  • How do we feel about what we know? What emotions does it stir in us?
  • How might our emotions and reactions be clouding our view or impeding our progress? How might we manage that?
  • How can we leverage our emotions to foster positive action?
  • What might others need to hear from me right now?

The special challenge of ‘confronting reality’ in crisis is how radically and fast ‘reality’ changes. So, like all the other tasks, you may need to do this every week, every day or even every hour.

Task 3: Connect to what’s essential and enduring

In crisis, people become preoccupied with potential loss and threat. Covid-19 has put at risk our routines, physical and financial security, connections, identities, and our very lives. Looming loss can overwhelm us, obscuring what abides. Values (personal and organizational) abide. So do our shared purpose and history, our collective gifts, our accumulated wisdom, our commitment to each other, and our common humanity. Tapping into those essentials can sustain and stabilize us all.

I’m not talking about regurgitating corporate platitudes; I’m talking about connecting with what is true and lasting. Articulate fundamental purpose; remind people of what sustains us; reaffirm those commitments we’ve always held and will continue to hold until we can’t. Ask others to remember all of that, to lean on it, and use it to guide action now. Not everything is going away, and what endures can stabilize, comfort and unify us.

One of my clients, the CEO of Windmill Microlending in Canada, gave a master class in leadership in a recent letter she wrote to her staff. She’s given me permission to share portions of that letter, in which she reaffirms the enduring commitments of the organization:

“When so much is changing, it’s somehow grounding to remind one another about what’s as solid and true today as it was last year and will be next year and next decade: 

Windmill is in the business of helping people out of difficulty. Our organization is in the business of helping people who want to help other people, by putting their skills to work.

We are here to serve and will be a decade from now, living out the vision of Windmill’s founders for converting potential into prosperity. Humanity is resilient and we learn our best in situations of challenge and stress. Stress can bring out the best in us, and can enable us to fulfill our potential.

Serving others and managing stress can be exhilarating and rewarding. Even more surely—those things are exhausting. It’s normal that you are feeling very tired right now.”

Task 4: Discern the next right step

Normally, leaders map out long-term strategies and execute against them. But in crisis – when the world as you know it is falling away and something new is emerging – it’s often impossible to see far enough ahead to map more than a few next steps. Yet even for the action-oriented, moving forward in a crisis can be daunting. Here’s why.

First, crisis often invokes a sense of powerlessness. The forces of disruptive change are frequently far beyond your control, especially when so much is unknown and fast-evolving. It’s sobering (and sane) to recognize the limits of your influence, especially when your team is looking to you to handle it all.

So, in critical times, focus your efforts where you have control. Stay attuned to the larger, uncontrollable forces at play, but don’t let them distract you from taking action where you can.

The second obstacle to moving forward is the desire to establish the “perfect” plan before taking action. These days, the stakes are high and you want to get this right. But in crisis, there is rarely a perfect plan – so if you wait for it, you might not act. Rather than asking yourself what the right thing is, try asking what the next right thing is. Do that, and learn from there.

Otto Scharmer, a Senior lecturer at MIT, calls this “prototyping.” It involves sketching out an initial strategy and testing it through action. Each action cycle produces new learning, which in turn informs the next cycle of action. This iterative approach often builds momentum more quickly and effectively than searching for the elusive perfect plan. And in a time where reality is changing day by day, prototyping cycles will naturally speed up.

One of my favorite prototyping models is the “OODA Loop”, a decision making process for complex, rapidly changing situations.

You can also prototype yourself! In this crazy time, you may be stretched to develop a whole new skill set or aspect of yourself. (I can help you with that.) Don’t attempt to take on all the changes in one fell swoop. Pick one or two areas to start and make small new moves. Then reflect on the results, recalibrate, and reengage.

Task 5: Innovate

Crisis is necessarily a time of re-creation, but I’m not sure there’s ever been a time in history that has spurred such drastic adaptation on such a global scale and in such a short time. The extent of the disruption is dizzying. But so are the opportunities.

It’s a time of immense creativity, driven by immense and immediate need. Almost overnight, virtual corporate coffee breaks, government by zoom, online worship, neighborhood errand brigades, and social safety nets have sprung into being.

But part of the leadership work at the eye of the storm is to take a longer-term view to seize the opportunity coming out of the disruption. Here are some questions that can prime your thinking:

  • What are we discovering – about ourselves, values, culture, mission, marketplace and stakeholders – that we didn’t know before?
  • What’s holding up really well, even in times like this?
  • What weaknesses are showing up?
  • What ways of working have we had to abandon that we might not want to resume when things go ‘back to normal?’ Why?
  • What perspectives, attitudes, practices, programs, structures and practices are proving their worth under duress? Which need to be strengthened or created? Which have outlived their usefulness?

Task 6: Extend Care

While the coronavirus may give rise to many good new things, it is fundamentally threatening our lives, livelihoods, and ways of living. We grieve both realized and anticipated loss, as this excellent Harvard Business Review article explores. My friends, colleagues and clients are consistently talking about how exhausted they are: finding it harder to think clearly or concentrate, ready for bed much earlier at night. An insightful Rolling Stone article talks about this phenomenon as “moral fatigue.”

All of this to say: many of us and many of you are feeling the effects of stress, and what’s called for is extra care and kindness.

Starting with you. I mean it.

In my mind, caring for oneself should be the first task of a leader in stressful times, not the last. Yet in every call I’ve had with my executive clients in this COVID crisis, their own well-being has been the last thing on their minds. For those who think that self-renewal is some squishy, indulgent thing, I offer this wisdom from philosopher Parker Palmer:

“…on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act. It is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can … give true self the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

Actively care for yourself. Remember that you, too, are being buffeted by life in the coronavirus. Maybe adjust your expectations of how much you’re going to get done or how elegantly you’re going to do it. Rather than pushing yourself to the max in your exercise routine, consider engaging in gentler forms of movement to lower the overall stress on your system. Keep returning to the ‘Catch Your Breath’ practices at the beginning of this post. And, importantly, remember that caring for oneself includes letting others care for you.  

Why should you focus on self-stewardship? Because a sound and grounded ‘you’ is the best place from which to then extend care to others.

I’m in awe of the things leaders are doing to reach out to their stakeholders. They’re reaching out with simple emails saying “How’s everyone doing?” Holding virtual lunches. Acknowledging the stress of this difficult time and encouraging people to be forgiving of themselves and each other. Spotlighting great work. Mobilizing support for team members in need. One of my clients holds a “Daily 10:15,” a quick virtual staff meeting at 10:15 each morning to connect and strategize for the day ahead. One of my state’s candidates for governor has retooled his campaign machine into a COVID-19 response team for citizens throughout the state.

Again, my client at Windmill did a beautiful job of extending care in that same letter to staff:

“As we end this week, I want to reach out and share my joy with you at some of your work and accomplishments this week….

In closing, our physical health and our mental health are our most precious commodities. Please look after yours and your families’. If you need to adjust your work or need access to any services, please reach out. We have a benefits plan and paid time off that are there for you when you need it. We can only help our clients and one another when we are healthy, so please look after yourselves.

And thanks for being such a great team. I truly feel blessed to work with each of you and look forward to the time when we can be together in person again. In the meantime, thank you for living Windmill values so well each day.”

The creativity and commitment I see from business and community leaders is giving so much hope and comfort to so many. 

What about you?

Normally in this section of my posts, I offer questions for your reflection. But I’m hoping that you will share your experiences, discoveries and strategies in leading through crisis. I also hope you’ll share your struggles and questions.  I’d love to update this post with your input.

In the meantime, please take care. Remember to return to the quiet eye of the hurricane to get your bearings. And for all that you’re doing and shouldering, thank you.  Please let me know if I can help.

Leading The Brokenhearted

I never imagined I’d be writing this post. But I have coached more stressed and grieving people over the past year than I have in my whole career. Challenges of every sort seem to be buffeting us, and their effects accompany us into all aspects of our lives… including into the workplace and into the hands of devoted community and organizational leaders like you. So here goes: an executive coach’s exploration of leadership in brokenhearted times. 

There is no predicting the accident, the diagnosis or the addiction; the mass shooting or the private abuse. The fire, flood, quake or hurricane. The disturbing national event or the cataclysmic organizational shake-up. We think of these as the unimaginable tragedies that happen in other places and to other people. Not here, to us.

But these past many months have reminded us that tragedy can strike right where we stand. The unthinkable happens, and the affected take a bit of time out to register the blow. But then – grieving, disoriented or even traumatized – they show back up to work. They may be walking back into your workplace, to your team. And there you are,  leading people in their most raw and human moments, when their well-pressed suits can’t button up their sorrow. If the tragedy has hit your whole community or workplace, you may even have to lead the brokenhearted while your own heart is in shreds.

If this happens to you, it will be a crucible in your journey as a leader, calling upon you in ways you can’t imagine. Although you can’t predict these moments, you can prepare for them: personally, relationally and structurally.

Preparing Personally 

Who you are is how you lead – and that is never so true as when the chips are down. Your own experience with tragedy will naturally shape how you manage others in heartbreaking times. So it can be helpful to review your own history with trauma, grief and loss, and take clear-eyed stock of their imprint on you as a person and as a leader. The “grit and grace” lens is one simple way to self-reflect.

Grit is a crucial leadership trait in difficult times. It helps you focus on the work at hand, drive to make progress and provide others with a sense of stability and predictability. To what extent does grit show up in you during tough times, and how does it manifest? How has that grit served you or others in tough times?

As useful as grit is, it’s also possible to bring so much of it that others experience you as uncaring or unapproachable. For example, has your own history trained you to ignore or power through your own emotions? Is there any chance that you expect (or hope) that others will do the same? Does vulnerability make you squeamish or judgmental? Becoming more at home with challenging emotions (your own and others’) can help you prepare to be more open-hearted when others are facing difficult times.

Grace. Perhaps your response to tragedy tends toward grace, which is a key aspect of the ‘consoler in chief’ role. Grace offers compassion and comfort to those in pain. But too much grace can get you in over your head. You can become so identified with others’ suffering that you lose your objectivity and find yourself crossing the line from leader to rescuer or enabler. You can be so flexible as to create havoc on the rest of the team and on productivity. So being too helpful can put you, the employee and the company at risk. If you tend to be grace-full to a fault, you might want to set up some guardrails that prevent you from going overboard on overhelping.

The optimal stance, in tragedy as in most things, is a blend of grit and grace, which allows you to be appropriately sensitive without losing your own footing. A shining example of blended leadership in recent times is Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Here’s a clip of Cruz, where her deep care and steely resolve are seamlessly woven together.

Turning grit & grace toward yourself. It’s hard to lead well when the well is empty. In times of tragedy or challenge, it’s crucial to attend to yourself. Most leaders would tell you that self-care is absolutely necessary, yet few actually put that into practice. They treat it as optional: something they’ll get around to when they have the time. But if you are leading the brokenhearted, self-care isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity that requires both resolve and self-compassion. Get sleep. Exercise and eat well. Go easy on the alcohol. Do things that nourish you. Draw on your support system; consider getting counseling for yourself. Structure your time, adjust your expectations and renegotiate your commitments to align with the realities of life in a time of upheaval.

Preparing Relationally 

You can’t know in advance what people will need when tragedy falls.  But you can prepare by knowing what kinds of conversations you’ll need to have when it does.

If you’re leading someone(s) going through difficulty, don’t make any assumptions about what support he/she/they need from you. Don’t assume that what you would want is what they want. Even if you know them well, don’t assume that you know the brokenhearted them.  Tragedy changes us and reveals aspects of us that we may not know or show under normal circumstances.

How do you know what support to give someone? Ask them. Does he need time off, or does being in the office help? How does she want you to answer other people’s questions about what’s going on? What can you share, with whom? What needs to be kept private? Do they want you to check in with them, or would they prefer that you not ask how they’re doing unless they bring it up?

Sometimes people can’t articulate what they need, but they know what won’t work. So if they don’t know what support to ask for, you can ask them what you could do that would be counterproductive or unhelpful for them. A lot of clarity and wisdom can surface there.

Even as you accommodate (as possible) someone who’s reeling, you still have to make sure that the work gets done. This is delicate terrain, where you need to keep grit and grace in balance. The best way I know to navigate this is to explicitly acknowledge the challenges of working while recovering, and make explicit plans and agreements. Talk with the brokenhearted person, and then the team, about how the work’s going to get done while someone is either physically out of the office or is present, but less mentally/emotionally available.

Here’s an example from my own experience. My father died when I was 30; my mother had died several years earlier. That second loss really threw me, and my performance was very uneven while I grappled with it. I’d get totally overwhelmed, out of nowhere. My boss noticed this new unpredictability and sat down with me to create a strategy.  We moved one of my deadlines back by a few weeks, and moved one of my projects to a teammate. We agreed that I would work in the office as much as I could, but that I could leave the office on short notice if I felt overwhelmed. Sometimes just knowing I had the space to leave enabled me to stay. Sometimes, I needed to step away for an afternoon or a day. So I briefed a co-worker on my deliverables and kept him in the loop so that he could step in at any time if needed.

It wasn’t easy, but it worked. My boss’ explicit collaboration with me and engagement with other team members gave me the room to recover without derailing the team’s ability to deliver.

Preparing Structurally 

While you may not have given these worst-case scenarios much thought, your organization probably has. Most organizations have created structures to help you support staff through difficult times. Rather than waiting till a tragedy hits to know what these structures and resources are, you can meet periodically with your HR professionals on the following questions:

  • What actions are within and beyond the scope of your role as a leader, when responding to employees going through challenging times?
  • What are the resources available through the organization’s Employee Assistance Program? How does an employee go about engaging EAP services?
  • What is the manager’s responsibility and process for notifying company officials if an employee appears to be a danger to self or others?
  • What internal programs (such as leave-sharing, disaster relocation funds) has the company established? How do they work?

Leading the brokenhearted is perhaps the most delicate, difficult and important work you will ever do. It will stretch your character, heart and competence in ways that everyday leadership won’t. Though we like to think that tragedy won’t happen to us or “ours,” the truth is that it can land at your feet in an instant.  And while you’ll never be ready, you can prepare.